‘I thought they’d kill us’: how the US navy devastated a tiny Puerto Rican island

[Many thanks to Yarimar Bonilla for bringing this item to our attention.] “For decades, the military fired explosives on Vieques. The US citizens who live there still face the consequences.” Wilfred Chan reports from Vieques, Puerto Rico. Read full article at The Guardian.

When Carmen Valencia was five years old, troops came banging on her door. Her mother grabbed a long machete. “I had no idea what was going on, but I thought, if they come in here, they’re going to kill us.”

Now 78, Valencia has lived most of her life on Vieques, one of the Caribbean’s most picturesque islands, under the thunder of bombs. They roared from navy planes just over the hill by her mother’s house, leaving the smell of smoke hanging thick in the air. She was even more frightened of the troops, who would stalk her neighborhood looking for women to harass.

But Valencia and her whole family are US citizens. Vieques is part of Puerto Rico, a US territory. She wasn’t living in an enemy country – just a 52-square-mile island of farms and cattle ranches, ringed by pristine gold beaches and crystal waters.

Formerly a Spanish colony, Puerto Rico was seized by the US in 1898 as a war prize. In the following years, a series of racist supreme court rulings defined Puerto Rico’s status as a territory “belonging to” but not “part of” the United States, citing its “alien races” and “savage tribes”. Though Puerto Ricans were made US citizens in 1917 – partly so that they could be drafted into the first world war – they still can’t vote in presidential elections, and their sole representative to Congress can’t vote either.

In 1941, US troops evicted Vieques’ roughly 10,000 residents at gunpoint and relocated them to a narrow strip of land in Vieques’ center. The rest of the island was turned into a de facto war zone – deploying, by one navy admiral’s estimate, as much as 3m pounds a year of live ordnances containing napalm, depleted uranium, lead, and other toxic chemicals, for more than 60 years. “They did anything here that they wanted,” Valencia says.

Islanders protested in vain until 1999, when the navy accidentally dropped a 500lb bomb on a lookout post, killing David Sanes, a 35-year-old Viequense who worked there as a security guard. Viequenses responded with civil disobedience to impede the navy base’s operations, drawing global headlines and visits from Ricky Martin, Al Sharpton, and the Dalai Lama. Valencia joined a new group called the Vieques Women’s Alliance, which mobilized hundreds of women to the front lines. In 2001, she and 30 other women broke into the base and were briefly jailed. “We wanted to be arrested,” she says. “We had to speak our right to be there.”

After two years of protests, George W Bush admitted defeat. “They don’t want us there,” he conceded (“the most beautiful speech I ever heard,” Valencia says). And 20 years ago, on 1 May 2003, the base closed for good.

Though the islanders defeated the US navy without a single bullet, another struggle was just beginning. Two decades later, Vieques is wounded by abnormally high rates of disease, a discriminatory economic system, and a lack of basic services that’s made living here even harder than before. This is a story about the long-term consequences of colonialism, and a community that’s determined against all odds to get free.

‘Sooner or later, we’re dead with something’

To many visitors, Vieques feels like paradise. Wild horses roam the winding streets, in front of Spanish-style houses with sweeping sea views. It’s the site of one of the world’s few bioluminescent bays, with aquatic microorganisms that glitter blue under a moonless sky. And the former navy grounds have been designated as a wildlife refuge, home to some of the continent’s most diverse bird populations.

What tourist brochures don’t usually mention is the dizzying number of unexploded ordnance – what the military calls UXOs – that still litter Vieques’ land and water. The navy is in charge of the cleanup, and so far it’s removed 129,000 munition items from more than 4,400 acres, according to Dan Waddill, the navy’s Vieques restoration branch head. But the military hasn’t begun removing explosives from the surrounding seas. “The land was a higher priority,” he says, “and the underwater work is more difficult.” The navy previously announced a completion date of 2032, but that’s been pushed back to 2033, Waddill says. [. . .]

Though no official cause has been determined, studies have found unusually high concentrations of toxic metals like mercury, uranium, and arsenic in viequenses’ hair and urine. Shortly before the navy’s departure, Carmen Ortiz Roque, a Puerto Rico epidemiologist who studied Vieques for years, found residents there were 30% likelier to die from cancer than other Puerto Ricans, with significantly higher rates of heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, and infant mortality. Another analysis found Vieques islanders over 50 are as much as 280% more likely to have lung cancer than other Puerto Ricans. “The human population of Vieques is by far the sickest human population that I’ve ever worked with,” Ortiz Roque said.

The navy insists it’s not to blame, citing a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) that concluded that any airborne contaminants from the navy’s bombing would be “essentially undetectable” for Vieques residents. “The navy activities were several miles from where the people live,” Waddill says. The explosions would have left “very, very small concentrations” of organic chemicals that “disappear quickly”, and “those activities just didn’t cause exposure to the people that live there”.

That’s not how the islanders see it. During the 1999 protests, Viequenses rallied around Milivi Adams, a toddler diagnosed with a rare form of nerve cancer. Doctors found elevated uranium levels in the girl’s blood; she died just months before the navy closed its base.

Nearly everyone on the island has lost someone. The Vieques Women’s Alliance’s co-founder, Gladys Rivera, died of stomach cancer in 2007. Valencia’s husband, a civil servant named Luis, died in 2014 of liver failure, though he rarely drank. “People who have been here, sooner or later they’re dead with something,” Valencia says. “[The navy doesn’t] believe it’s like that, but it is our truth.” [. . .]

For full article and photos, see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/apr/30/vieques-puerto-rico-us-navy-base-training

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